China’s censored feminist movement finds solace in Sally Rooney

When the manuscript of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends first arrived in Peng Lun’s inbox, he hesitated. It was 2017, and Peng – who had worked in publishing for a little over a decade – had just started his own house in Shanghai, Archipel Press.

He had heard about the clamour from publishers that resulted in a heated auction for the rights to the young Irish author’s first novel and thought it might be worth having it translated into simplified Chinese.

He decided to commission readers’ reports from two women. “Because I’m almost a middle-aged man,” he tells the Guardian, “and Sally Rooney is so young and her novel is about young people’s love affairs.”

One review was mixed, the other was positive. So he sat down to read the manuscript himself.

“Her writing is simple but very, very fresh,” he says. He acquired the rights, commissioned a translation and watched as an Irish author in her mid-20s became one of the most beloved novelists in the world.

In 2019, Conversations with Friends, Rooney’s first novel, was published in China. Chinese readers have since bought 150,000 copies of Rooney’s novels, a high number for any author – for translated fiction, anything over 30,000 is considered a bestseller. A bestselling Chinese novel is considered anything that sells more than 50,000 copies.

Since 2017, something else has been happening in China: the government has cracked down on feminist movements, seeing them as a subversion of the idea that communism has already liberated women.

Words related to feminism are censored online, and although rhyming terms have sprung up to replace them – feminists may be called “women’s fists”, which sounds like “women’s rights” in Chinese – the crackdown by authorities led to women self-censor. In 2022, President Xi Jinping appointed an all-male politburo for the first time since 1997 (previously there had been, at most, two female members).

Instead of taking to the streets, there is anecdotal evidence that young women are turning to novels, podcasts and feminist nonfiction to learn more about feminism in private. A 2021 study by Fan Yang, a lecturer at the Hangzhou Normal University in Zhejiang, found that the number of feminist podcasts increased from eight to 35 in under two years.

Zhang Yueran, an author who teaches literary studies at Renmin University of China, says Rooney’s popularity is part of this wave.

“There’s definitely a very robust feminist awakening among Chinese female readers,” she says. Rooney’s characters’ “pursuit of expanded freedom, in particular, encouraged Chinese female readers”.

Rooney’s stories tend to focus on expectations, vulnerability and sometimes violence in her characters’ romantic, platonic and familial relationships.

And then there’s the strength of Rooney’s voice. “There’s something moving about her voice, especially when it shows the vulnerability of the characters,” Zhang says. “Those moments are so beautiful that you want to stop there.”

Unlike Rooney, Chinese writers also “hardly ever let their characters talk about national politics”, she says.

Foreign authors published in China are subject to less scrutiny than local authors. Rooney’s own leftwing politics may also work in her favour.

Megan Walsh, author of The Subplot: What China is Reading and Why it Matters, said the Chinese Communist party is less concerned by foreign fiction, “because even if people embrace it, it’s not ultimately seen as Chinese”.

All Chinese publishers must work with a state-owned publishing house to some extent, in order to be granted an ISBN licence or for distribution rights. Peng likens it to being an imprint within a large publishing house. But there is no system ensuring that every book is approved by a censor. Rather, the publishers take responsibility for what they publish.

“It’s more self-censorship than very strict censorship,” according to Peng, who says nothing has been censored in the translation of Rooney’s works, something her translator confirmed.

Discussing literature or reading feminist publications is a safer way to practise feminism, one woman told the Guardian. “People are reading about Sally Rooney or a lot of feminist works – I think it’s because other ways of feminism are just blocked. So we turn to a safer area in which we experience less censorship,” she says.

“The feminist movement in China is different from what we are talking about in the western context. Because in China we cannot go on the street, we cannot protest. So in the public sphere, what we can do is quite limited and highly disciplined.”

Customers walk down a staircase at a Jinchuang bookstore in Nanjing, in China’s Jiangsu province
A Jinchuang bookstore in Nanjing in Jiangsu province. Young Chinese women can relate to the experiences of Sally Rooney’s and Elena Ferrant’s characters, says author Megan Walsh. Photograph: China News Service/Getty Images

Feminist scholars

Rooney isn’t the only foreign author to whom Chinese readers are turning. The Japanese feminist scholar Chizuko Ueno has had multiple books translated into simplified Chinese in recent years, as has the Italian author Elena Ferrante. All three writers explore women’s private or domestic lives.

There is a universality to the characters and plots in both Rooney’s and Ferrante’s works, but they share something particular: the protagonists in Normal People, the most popular of Rooney’s novels, and Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet are exceptionally good students, young women who work hard and excel at school but nonetheless find themselves somewhat dissatisfied or alienated.

In China, students face extreme pressure to excel in the standardised final school exam, the gaokao.

“It absolutely shapes their entire sense of the future, their entire sense of what their teenage lives are made of,” says Walsh, and this is a key theme in Chinese literature reflecting a “burgeoning feminist, #MeToo movement”.

Young women are asked to study as hard as men, for example, but then find they haven’t got the same privileges, says Walsh. Seeing Rooney and Ferrante’s characters experience similar pressure and frustration “is exactly what they need to hear”.

Shiye Fu hosts the podcast Scholastic Volatility, about “social issues related to everyday life”, with Zhiqi Zhang and Jianguo Leng. All three are former culture reporters. Launched in 2019, it has been downloaded more than 60m times, according to Fu.

The social issues the three discuss are often related to feminism and gender. “We’ve learned how to be feminists through making the episodes,” she says. “In this way we grow with the podcast.”

People tend to think of feminist movements as happening “in the public sphere, in a physical place, with a unanimous agenda”, says Fu. “However, in real life, the feminist movement does not always happen in that way.

“In China reading and discussing feminist literature is also a way to practise feminism.”

Fu says one of the most important lessons she learned from Ferrante’s work is that “she is trying to talk about women’s experiences in women’s own words – and that is something really inspiring for us”.

Rooney and Ferrante are important to her because they’ve shown her that “life as we are experiencing every day is meaningful”, she says – that it is worth writing, reading and talking about.

“Our everyday life is meaningful. I think that’s really important.”


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